Alex graduated from Chapel Hill High School in 2013 and began his first year at the United States Military Academy shortly afterward on a path to become an Army Officer. His freshman (“plebe”) year went well after making the Army West Point Triathlon Team and training twice a day with teammates who became his best friends and family away from home. After competing at USA Triathlon’s Collegiate Club National Championship and finishing his final exams, Alex attended the Army’s Air Assault School and learned basic rotary-winged aircraft operations planning, sling-load set up and inspection, and rappelling skills. The training culminated with a 12-mile weighted ruck before Alex returned to North Carolina and immediately got back to triathlon before he would begin an internship at Fort Bragg. But after an open water swim with his youngest brother Jacob (in which Jacob totally kicked his butt), Alex realized that something was wrong and called his doctor for advice. She recommended a trip to the Emergency Department, and after waiting around for a few hours as more and more doctors peered in to check him out, the ones with “Oncology” embroidered on their robes began to trickle in. That was when Alex was hit with the realization that this was not going to be quite as easy of a fix as he had hoped.
By the end of the night, the C-word was thrown around with a pretty high level of confidence. It was Rhabdomyosarcoma – a pretty rare pediatric cancer with no known carcinogens or genetic causes. With supportive parents at his side, he returned home, relatively shocked but ready to put up a fight. Like Stephen, another one of JUST TRYAN IT’s STARS, getting hit with a cancer diagnosis at the age of 19 was one of the last things Alex expected to hear. And Alex also realized that he had to be strong and positive. Not just for himself, but for the family and friends that could do nothing but watch what was about to happen.
He found out that he had cancer on June 7th, 2014. But, he was still lucky. It wasn’t like there was total shock after finding mysterious bruises, or missed diagnosis after missed diagnosis stemming from feeling ill in any way – it was pretty obvious and Alex went to one of the best places in the world to take care of it. It just happened to be Alex’s last night of leave. Alex just happened to be at home. His parents happened to live so close to UNC. UNC happened to have an amazing Cancer Center. Talk about lucky timing (even for such an unlucky event).
Alex had two surgeries, and then two days between getting out of the hospital and going back for his first chemo treatment… which was super fun, of course, with nauseating toxins and a fresh incision. The chemo only got worse as the toxins built and side effects increased in number and severity, and throwing a month of radiation treatment into the middle of chemo certainly didn’t make it feel any better. Throughout treatment, Alex continued to race in triathlons – except now he had “Carolina” across his chest, and was full of chemo toxins.
His studies in Peace, War, and Defense at UNC allowed him the opportunity to make many new friends and he did everything he could to make the best of a pretty sour situation. He learned how to skydive, and took classes in photography and photojournalism so he could share other’s stories through images. His friends and family were there the entire time to help him whenever he was beat down (which was often). Between his mindset and the support he had available around him daily, Alex somehow kept his sanity and kept on going to class every day and participating in athletic, social, and fundraising events whenever he could.
At week 23, PET scans were coming back clear. Treatment continued weekly for another six months to ensure that no single malignant cells remained within his body, and by August 2015, Alex was ready to head back to West Point and continue his cadet career with hopes of still commissioning as an Army Officer. During treatment, he finished near dead-last at the USA Triathlon 2015 Collegiate Club Nationals after walking almost the entirety of the run. In April 2016, Alex finished Collegiate Nationals in 87th place – almost all the way back to his 67th place finish from 2014, but nearly 600 places higher than the 660th place finish while still undergoing chemotherapy.
But no matter how all of that goes, Alex wants to help other kids with cancer. It was the motivation and inspiration provided by my caregivers and other patients within the hospital that kept him going even when things looked horrible. It is for those friends still going through treatment, those friends who completed treatment and returned back to normal life, and those who the disease decided that it just wouldn’t let go that Alex continues to advocate for. They are the reason he pushes on and does all he can to help those around him. Every day becomes another gift, and another opportunity to make a positive impact on the world.